Thursday, October 16, 2008

National Book Awards

The nominees for the National Book Awards were announced this morning. Here’s a list of the fiction nominees:

• Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project
• Rachel Kushner, Telex from Cuba
• Peter Matthiessen, Shadow Country
• Marilynne Robinson, Home
• Salvatore Scibona, The End

Though I find that when books get favorably reviewed in the Times and The New Yorker, I tend to pick them up, I’m a bit surprised I haven’t read any of these yet, nor that some of the things I had read aren't listed, e.g. Lahiri's
Unaccustomed Earth. I do have The Lazarus Project and Hemon’s first novel sitting around here somewhere, and I picked up Gilead a week or two ago. But I barely recall reading something about Kushner several months ago.

What always interests me is the way being listed and then short-listed for these awards seems to be an attemp
t to gain additional readership, in other words, sell more books. Were I to walk into a Barnes & Noble tomorrow morning, the stickers would already be on whatever of these books they have in stock. Thousands of people who never would have taken a chance on the second novel of a Bosnian refugee who came to this country knowing no English, will be sitting down with a copy of his novel and probably leaving it half read because the prose (which I find astonishingly fresh and good) just doesn’t work for them. You can check out a short story by Hemon courtesy of The New Yorker.

And here’s where the listing to increase readership and thus drive sales clashes with the artistic integrity of the award. I’m glad that people are going to take a chance on Hemon. And I’m excited that there are a couple of books here I hadn’t even known about and will likely pick up at some point, especially Scibona’s The End. But if literary fiction sales are really declining, I think it is a testament to National Book Foundation’s integrity that they aren’t afraid to throw a book that might not have mainstream popularity but nevertheless be a remarkable work into the mix.

Two years ago, Richard Powers won the National Book award in fiction for The Echo Maker
(another book that is on a shelf in the other room, unread). Familiar as I am with Powers’s writing, it could very well be a hard book for a lot of people to enjoy, as the reviewers at will attest to. That same year, Mark Z. Danielewski was nominated for Only Revolutions, a typographical funhouse of a novel that can be read from either side, optionally flipping the book over every eight pages so you can see the different narratives intertwine. People seem even more polarized on this one. Neither of these novels had a lot of mainstream appeal, but the Foundation saw fit to nominate them because they represented the best in that year’s fiction. There would have been no outrage at the snub of Danielewski had he not been nominated, a more populist work could have been chosen in his stead.

Honoring the best book written in America is a worthy endeavor. They even have a banquet where the awards are given, sort of like the academic Oscars. But rather than selling out, as they so easily could do, the National Book Awards from my perspective should be commended for getting this right.

No comments: